photo courtesy Memphis and Shelby County Room, Benjamin L. Hooks Central Library
Though the big downtown theatres — the Malco, Loew’s State, Loew’s Palace, Warner, and others — had the most stunning architecture, the smaller neighborhood theatres had a charm all their own.
The Linden Circle, located at the curve where Linden swings around and meets Peabody (the actual street address was, and is, 305 S. Somerville), had an impressive marquee that was probably visible from miles away. Unlike some of the other, freestanding neighborhood movie houses, the Linden Circle was also tucked in between a row of shops — visible here are a woman’s clothing store called The Franlian Shoppe on the left and the Just-Rite Beauty Shop (its lights are switched off) on the right.
This picture dates from late 1942. I know this because I can read the 1942 date on the rear license plate of that car parked out front, and also because the theatre is announcing (see the white sign?) that a 1943 Mickey Rooney picture called The Human Comedy is “coming soon.” The Internet Movie Data Base describes the plot this way: “Teenager Homer Macauley stays at home in small-town Ithaca to support his family, while his older brother Marcus prepares for war.”
What’s a mystery, however, is what is currently drawing those crowds “Tonight” as it says on that same big white sign (back on this particular night in 1942, I mean). The sign announces something called “Trade Show,” and IMDb doesn’t list such a movie. So is the theatre itself hosting some kind of trade show? In other words: Am I really so stupid to think that was the name of a movie? (The answer, as you’ll see in a few seconds, is: YES.)
The photo itself has some intriguing elements. For one thing, unusual for a movie theatre, there are no colorful movie posters, and nothing on the marquee other than the name of the theatre. A sign on the ticket booth says “Reserved” but for what? Some of the people are clearly posing for the camera, while others seem oblivious. Note what seems to be an African-American usher, in a fancy uniform, standing on the curb at the far right. A blurry shoeshine boy seems to have his little stand set up outside the entrance. And what’s with that kid in the shorts — is he trying to sneak in?
In his fine book Memphis Movie Theatres, part of the “Images of America” series, my pal Vincent Astor writes that the Linden Circle was built in 1926 and taken over by the Malco chain in 1929. It “was remodeled with a streamlined 1930s modern front and this large marquee.” His own book shows a view of the theatre from a different angle, which cleared up some of my confusion. His photograph reveals that the name of the movie currently showing was displayed on the sides of the big marquee, which explains why you can’t see it here, in this front-on view. His photo also shows the theatre “during the trade screening of The Human Comedy” so presumably that’s what “Trade Show” means on the signs out front. Good grief, it wasn’t a movie at all; it was a trade showing, which I presume means a preview for others in the movie business, but I really just don’t know. I’m sorry I even brought it up.
Finally, Vincent notes that the Linden Circle “was the major neighborhood theatre operated by Malco until the construction of the larger Crosstown Theatre.”
The Linden Circle packed ’em in for years, but finally closed. The building is still standing, shorn of its impressive marquee and covered with paneling. Most people probably drive right past it without ever realizing that this was once one of the most popular movie theatres in town.